Thursday, August 27, 2020
Tuesday, August 18, 2020
Just finished the Umbrella Academy Season 2. The series has never had the artistic heights of the Boys or Punisher, but if you liked Season 1 you should like this one as well. It is of course about family, and rather than reviewing all 8 hours, I'm just going to point out a couple of ways it dealt with this theme.
(All of these are fairly obvious, don't @ me for lack of originality. I just thought they should be written down at least.)
The biggest is the structure of the season. I was not looking forward to this sequel season (and took a while to watch it) out of fear of this. The strength of this show is the characters, their dysfunctions, and the enabling environments they have built their lives in. Family entanglements and metaplot pull them out of those environments, which is a fun arc to watch, but as a group they are painted far less well than each of their individual worlds.
Like many of the underplanned televised series, it looked like their second season could not replicate that. Characters would just be caught up full time in the metaplot - especially as they all ended the season by jumping into a time portal together into the sixties. Why do we the audience care about whatever built-from-scratch metaplot stuff in the sixties they will deal with?
Turns out their answer was pretty good! The siblings get deposited separately over the course of years throughout the sixties, cut off from each other, and having a long time to wait before reuniting. This allowed them to find and build new lives that represent where they are psychologically. Join the Civil Rights movement. Forget everything and live on a farm. Work for a boss that values you. Get married. Start a cult. These lives were meaningful because they made sense as what each character would create, and they had to be extracted from again to get the metaplot and family unity on the road. This way Season 2 replicated the same arcs as the first.
The most interesting and surprising bit was "the Swedes." Of course they were boring. That was the point and the way they could surprise you.
Season 1 of course had Hazel and Cha-Cha. Colorful, fun, humanized characters as the MIB instead of faceless mooks. A good subversion but it also took over the season. They and their problems were interesting enough that we spent more and more time on them, instead of the original characters. Any show sufficiently committed to humanism starts to develop this character bloat, of course, and I wouldn't want Season 1 without it. But a whole new set of assassins to have their character development and conflict every season becomes a labor instead of a surprise.
Instead we see something inhuman and ignorable, in S2E1 when these three mute, albino, nordic brothers just start shooting everything they see to get at the family. They can exist as this threat that moves things along, and be mowed down by the end, without complicating the plot further. Good job.
Except it's not as easy as that. First one of them is killed by a booby trap. And we see a brief shot of the two others giving him a viking funeral. It's sad and sweet but still weird and distant, like finding out elephants have a graveyard for their own. "Oh neat, animals do this human-like thing too."
In the penultimate episode, they take their twist. The two Swedes attack Allison, who mind controls one into killing the other in self-defense. Watching the one choke out his only remaining human connection was shot intensely.
Later we see the last remaining Swede alone in his safe house. Not plotting yet more blood revenge against the protagonist. But looking at a childhood photo of him and his lost brothers. Remembering his forced fratricide. Staring at his hand. And raising an axe to chop it off. He is filled with so much pain and loathing over what he did when under mind control that he is going to chop his own hand off!
This did not take a lot of screen time, and in fact it all had zero dialogue. But this silent arc took them from faceless threats to something with human pain and loss. We can still see the love in the inhuman, much like in "I Am Legend."
Because of this development, he earns the final resolution where instead of killing or being killed by the Umbrella Academy, they can understand each other to say "Enough," and stop the revenge.
On a very minor note, I had to laugh at one small joke.
It's a rule of this blog that whenever a media work makes reference to some work of art or otherwise plot-insignificant work, what they choose to reference is a direct window into the themes the auteur is addressing. Again, see I Am Legend (or how I criticized Parasite for failing this.)
Our-Five tells his past-self they made a typo in their calculations for traveling through time. What was the typo? A decimal point misplacement.
"Instead of 5.7, it was 0.57"
Instead of Five being separated from the Seven, Five is on the side of the Seven.
Small touch, but nice.
Monday, June 29, 2020
1917 is very very weird. Not because it is a movie about the horrors of war. I respect that theme, but we have many of those, and 1917 certainly is not the best of them. Depicting both the scale of the carnage of World Wars and the personal level of each individual atrocity are often diametric goals, and 1917 doesn't break new ground at either of those ends. It's good if you just want *more* of that, but not unique.
What makes it unique is, well... it's not a movie.
There is a certain type of videogame that's become increasingly popular, that never provides a gap in the story flow. Cinematics are all done with the game engine. You don't end one level with a boss and portal or helicopter and then start a new one in a different zone with a "Welcome to Green Hills Zone 1" sign, but rather you continuously flow from one room to the next with smooth transitions, so that it all feels like one uninterrupted ride on a lazy river. Black Ops, Brothers, Journey, Inside are all examples. (Yes these sometimes have loading screens, but you are meant to feel that your character did not skip over anything. Open World games could be like this, but it's single player games that can manage the linear on-rails aspect of this story.) They're also slightly surreal, as you see a world change radically and develop in your 120 minute session of sitting in front of the screen with no time skips.
These stories make somewhat more sense for the videogame format, as after all you are inhabiting one person and so just sticking with their point of view is more "realistic." It doesn't feel real to play, just because that's not how we are used to stories by this point, but it does feel hypnotically surreal and is kind of its own genre at this point.
1917 is just one of those games. There's not interactivity, but the story flows much, much more like Black Ops or Inside than any other movie. There's an obvious comparison to classics like Before Sunset which also do the "one continuous take on two characters" type of story, but for those the dialogue and the relationship between the characters is the focus. Whereas for 1917, and the videogames, the *environment* is the focus. We're using this third-person-limited view to explore several epic scene-pieces, and the awe as you slowly come upon them.
1917 does this very, very well. To use the word "beautiful" is an understatement. It's like if the grandest fantasy saga videogame that is drunk on using its new level of graphics to depict every tree and broad horizon, was advanced thirty years. That's what this movie looks like: the storymode of a videogame from thirty years in the future, showing you the beauty and horror of a countryside in the middle of war.
(The plot doesn't help either. Since it wants to talk about a global scale war, but also how one soldier on one mission can make a difference. And you have colorful NPC's who pop up for three minutes to advance your quests, say a couple memorable lines, and then never appear again.)
You should absolutely watch it for the aesthetic experience (on as large a screen as you can manage.) You should also play Journey, for pretty much the same reasons. Those two experiences will be much more similar than comparing it to any other movie.
Thursday, June 18, 2020
I thought it was actually Billy Flynn, and am amused that whenever I typed that in a search it still showed me the correct movie.
Not a ton to add to this movie, but I will say some things. I've been watching the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary, and recently read Redeployment, so "soldiers returning home from an unpopular war and having trouble fitting in" is a recent theme.
To anyone familiar with that genre, this does not cover a lot of new ground. "Soldiers used to watching a marketplace for any sudden movement, or to being in a firefight, will suffer bad reactions to a fireworks display at a football halftime show! Conservative viewpoint represented: our soldiers are doing their best and deserve our support and civilians can't imagine the things they do. Liberal viewpoint represented: it really is a hopeless war and many elites who attach themselves to The Troops are as bad as any hippie who throw insults at them." Etc etc.
I do appreciate how... pathetic everything is. They aren't at the Superbowl. They're at a NFL game of a football team that never even makes the playoffs. They can't get their movie sold, but are surrounded by Hollywood agents trying to and failing. It's a ritzy version of American decadence, but it's also a very hollow one.
Frankly the stars like Steve Martin, Astro, and Kristen Stewart feel out of place in this movie. Without them the other actors genuinely seem like "normal people out of their depth and trying to stay afloat." Joe Alwyn uh... really does seem like someone close to an emotional breakdown because he has no idea what he is doing. (Chris Tucker can stay, because uh, Hollywood C-list is the point of that guy.)
Vin Diesel is great because the problem of so many movies about a squad with a fallen comrade is that they are just a faceless memory or a number. Oh yeah, some people died, that is sad, but it's just a narrative trope and statistic. But with someone of his star power and charisma, you really *feel* the hole of his absence in the timeline without him. Where is Vin? We are different and lesser without Vin. It doesn't come close to the magnitude of the loss of a comrade, but it is the *direction* of that loss.
Now, the only thing anyone seems to have to say about the movie is the filming speed. Ang Lee experimented with 120 frames per second for recording this, and that was near universally panned. Easy to dismiss as both a failure, and irrelevant to the message. I certainly doubted Ang Lee intended this result.
The high frame rate used in the film drew some criticism, especially the decision to use it in a drama film. David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter said "the technical innovations took me out of the drama just as often as they pulled me in." Dan Callahan for TheWrap felt that some of the characters were "so super-clear that they look like a cut-out with scissors from a glossy magazine" and said "the extra-clarity 3D in this Lee movie often looks weirdly like something shot on videotape in the 1980s."
You see the irony don't you? In a movie full of mockery for patriotic citizens who want to know so much about "what was war like", but who flinch from the actual emotions of the veterans, it's hard not to think about our obsession with immersion. (See the Prometheus thread.) The consumer wants to be immersed in the "most realistic story" of the troops, but once they are given anything close to that, they walk off awkwardly. They didn't like what they got. They're the cheerleader saying "but how could we run away? You're going back to the front, right?"
That narrative uncanny valley is very much like the filming resolution. "No, wait, this is too good. It doesn't look as good as the crude fake. Go back."
Sunday, May 10, 2020
We all have this time to be going through the backlog of old media, which is how I watched Kino's Journey for the first time. The 2003 version. Others compare it to the 2017 version, often with the newer and prettier version not coming off well, but I haven't seen that and don't intend to, so I'll be ignoring that. There's also the manga. But I was pleased enough with this version, which seemed a lightning in a bottle I wouldn't expect to be replicated elsewhere, because it made some painful decisions in its portrayal.
Let's talk about existentialism, a favorite topic of this blog already. At its simplest core, it is about one sentence: Existence precedes essence. This is in contrast to "essence precedes existence", which is the belief that things have meaning or purpose prior to their physical existence. The belief that the soul precedes the body, or that the destination precedes the journey. In opposite to that, Existentialism isn't exactly "life without meaning" but rather "life before meaning." You're here, now you gotta figure out why.
While not a feature of current existentialist media, originally it was also very austere and minimalist. Albert Camus is the best example of this, particularly his novel "The Stranger." The scene whose action determines the entire plot of the novel is just this:
“I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I'd been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness. ”Sure, an action happened. We don't know why (and neither does the murderer ever know.) We don't feel the visceral detail of it. We don't see the infinite tragedy of the human life that was lost, and the perpetrator hardly feels like a rich, complex human himself. A thing happened. That's all.
Elsewhere I have established the spectrum between Humanist art and Archetypical art from where art serves its narrative masters by filling in as many details and connections as possible, to where Archetypical art creates very simple, stark shapes of characters. This 60's era of existentialism made use of the Archetypical, though not all existentialism in the future did. (The Little Prince, is another classic Archetypical existentialist example.)
Kino's is an amazing throwback to this art/philosophical combination. We do not get thorough backstories of everyone, even of the main characters besides one point in their lives. The animation is simple and clear, without much ornamentation or details. When Kino visits a "country" we meet one or two people, and rarely see anyone else. These are not "real people" in the in depth, conflicted, rich sense. These are certainly not "real places" but much more like fairytale settings (and before any modernist has gotten their hands on them by exploring the economy and sociopolitical relations of such a setting.) You could almost say the anime itself is fairytale like, except the substance of what happens and what is said is anything but that.
The substance is Kino being a self-driven agent, and often arguing about that (or refusing to argue) with his snarky motorcycle or disbelieving townspeople. She's on a journey (though her gender is ambiguous for several episodes, serving as the ultimate null-identity.) To where? Who knows. Which direction should they take? Doesn't matter. (The very first scene is Kino and the motorcycle arguing over what journey means and why are they doing this. The motorcycle makes some good, if ill-tempered points. Kino doesn't care.)
The theme of freedom comes up a lot. Hardly surprising in a work about journeying, and that I am calling existentialist (birds and wide open skies are also commonly referenced imagery.) So just acknowledge we pointed it out and move on to more astonishing material.
I'd say the theme of "when to take a life" comes up next most often. Kino, despite looking like a child on a motorcycle, is a crack shot and athletic duelist, who carries a variety of lethal weapons. Kino basically is capable of killing anyone she is interacting with at any time, and can transition to doing that very suddenly. It is as if at all moments she contains the question "Should I kill this person?" even when no one else is asking this.
Which Kino devotes a lot of thought to. Kino never claims to be a pacifist, and gets herself into violent enough situations that you wouldn't believe her if she did (and kills several people by the end.) But she takes deciding whether to take a live very seriously and in particular resents anything trying to make her take one.
The second episode starts with her shooting a rabbit in the snow. She brings it to three stuck travelers who are starving. She contemplates with her motorcycle whether killing one rabbit to save three humans was a good choice. Obviously any of us would say that's a bargain, but she is distinctly uncomfortable that she inserted herself into the decision of who should live and die. Later the travelers betray her, badly enough that she is forced to kill them. She continues to angst - not because she killed three bad men, but because she had killed the rabbit to no benefit.
Every episode is like this. It's a meditation on "why we do things" that is not about the reasons behind our intertwined lives, but the choices in an open and cold field that we have no explanation for. I have grown tired of "twists" and dramatic reversals, but with Kino, every single episode had some change at the end that a) surprised me and b) was loyal to the existentialist themes.
The reveal in the episode about robots where the maid is a robot is not just that her human masters are robots too, but that the nanny was a human roboticist who made the masters and then pretended to be a robot just to hide from the trauma of her own life. Without a human to give them purpose, the real robots commit suicide.
In the final episode she goes to a land that is known to be hostile to travelers, but is actually being very generous to her. She promises to stay only her three days (which is her custom.) She is guided by a young girl who reminds Kino of herself. It's such a good time she decides to stay longer than usual. The town is up in arms over this, so Kino leaves, with gifts from a once again kind town. That night a volcano washes away the entire village. Kino finds a note in the gifts saying the town knew its end was coming, and just wanted to live life as they always had, and to be kinder to travelers so they would be remembered well. It's devastating to our usually stoic protagonist. And it is both a callback to a previous town that believed the end was coming due to a holy book of poetry they believed too much in, and to the episode where we see an older traveler wordlessly give his life for a young girl so she can have freedom, and that young girl becomes Kino. "What do you do in the face of death?" and "What could be worth dying for, not in the sense of Helping More People, but your own priorities" are classic existential questions.
One of my favorite things about the show is how often Kino is asked the same question, but gives different answers. Repetition is of course a common Archetypical tool, but Kino's insistence on not repeating herself says a lot about her.
One episode starts with Kino meeting a man repairing railroad tracks. He has been doing this for decades, because that was the job he was given, and he has never questioned whether he should stop. When asked her thoughts, Kino tells the story of a land where robots could do all the work, so the people created stressful jobs just to feel they deserved the rewards. Kino continues on and meets a second man, who is destroying the track, for as simple and bureaucratic reason as the first. He was told to, and never stopped, decades later. When asked her thoughts, Kino talks about the same land but from a different perspective. At last, Kino meets a man who is building a new track where the old one used to be. When asked her thoughts, Kino says it doesn't remind her of anything and just leaves. I cracked up. Kino refuses to spend her life repeating the same thing for no reason like these men.
The whole time, Kino is meeting these lands who have their deep and ingrained reasons for doing things the way they do (which are often bizarre to us.) This show is not a humanist description of "how amazing and different we all are," because frankly these lands are too absurd, and too minimalist, to evoke sympathy or understanding. The show is the Outsider marveling at these different ways, rarely passing judgment, and yet leaving everyone feeling judged when Kino leaves.
I really could relate every episode in such a short summary, both beautiful and stark, like a good joke. There's the episode where Kino is asked separately by a murderer and victim "what is your advice for travel?" and she gives them different advice "Don't get killed."/"Don't kill anyone." It's heart-breaking and also funny. And we don't take away an easy answer from it. The scene even had someone ask Kino "if you didn't want me to kill them, you could have stopped me", in a way very reminiscent of the existentalist classic Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen when arguing with Eddie Blake.
And of course, when Kino supports a local plucky girl inventor in her mission to make a flying machine, which beats everyone's doubts and actually flies, Kino expresses surprise. She never thought it would work. Her motorcycle asks "why did you help?" "I wanted to see what would happen." Kino was not acting as part of some heart-warming community tale, but rather as just someone who would sate their curiosity at the passive cost of human life.
Camus' Mersault shot an Arab because the afternoon was hot. We're appalled, but the existentialist fiction says that these reasons are no less "real" than the reasons that surround everything in our absurd culture. The Kino who joins a coliseum tournament claims no greater moral reason. We just do it.